Ambassador Olson's Exclusive Interview with Pakistan Link
Pak-US Relationship "on a Very Positive Trajectory"
Los Angeles, CA: US Ambassador to Pakistan Richard G. Olson and Pakistani Board of Investment Chairman Dr Miftah Ismail led an information and communications technology (ICT) trade mission to Washington, DC, and California's Silicon Valley October 13-17. During the five-day mission, a delegation of 20 Pakistani government and business leaders promoted trade and investment linkages between the United States and Pakistan.
This was the second trade mission in less than twelve months led by Ambassador Olson. In November 2013, Pakistan's Petroleum Minister Shahid Abbasi and Ambassador Olson co-led a trade mission comprising 17 Pakistani oil and gas firms to Houston. American and Pakistani companies considered that trade mission a great success, with business deals worth tens of millions of dollars resulting from the trip.
After completion of the ICT trade mission, Ambassador Olson sat down with Pakistan Link for an exclusive interview at his hotel in Santa Monica, California.
PL: How do you see the current state of the US-Pakistan relations, and what future do you foresee for the US-Pakistan ties?
Ambassador Olson: I think that the relationship is on a very positive trajectory. It is no secret that we went through a difficult period in 2011, but since then both sides have been rebuilding relationship based on principles of mutual respect and mutual interest. We have reestablished our strategic dialogue, we had a great visit by the Prime Minister to Washington about a year ago, and we have had visits by Secretary Kerry, Secretary Hagel, other senior members of the administration coming out to Pakistan.
We have reestablished our strategic dialogue and have five working groups on the key items of interest and they continue to meet: we had the economic and finance working group in Washington two weeks ago. Finance Minister Dar participated in that and we recently organized an investment conference about the Diamer-Bhasha Dam, the mega project, which we are a leading supporter of. So I think the relationship is in much better shape.
In terms of the future, I just want to mention that I am here on the West Coast because I was co-leading an ICT delegation, an information communications technology mission, to Silicon Valley. We actually started in Washington and then went to Silicon Valley. We met with Microsoft, Google, Oracle, Cisco - to talk about business opportunities for American industry in Pakistan, but also for ways in which Pakistan can benefit from US technological superiority in these areas – and I think that is a good indication of what we want to do – we think there is a lot of room for growth in the information communications technology sector.
I led a trade mission to Houston last year about gas and oil. We think that the future lies much more with, if you will, in privatizing the relationship and building private sector to private sector links, because those will be more sustainable overtime and less variable in response to political dynamics.
PL: The Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill that provided financial assistance to Pakistan for 5 years has just expired. Will this financial assistance be renewed?
Ambassador Olson: It is important to understand that the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Bill was an authorization and so what it established was a notional level against which funds could be appropriated and we have done a significant amount under Kerry-Lugar-Berman so far – we have added 1400 MW to the national grid, addressing one of Pakistan’s critical needs, which is for energy as all Pakistanis know – we are in the process of building 126 schools, primary schools in Sindh Province, we have built 550 km of roads, especially connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan, so increasing the possibility for regional trade, and our assistance program will continue. We anticipate that all assistance levels are going down, all around the world not just with regard to Pakistan, but we expect that it will continue to be one of the largest programs in the World going forward.
PL: There have been reports that ISIS is now spreading its tentacles in Pakistan. Can you confirm these reports? How do you see these developments in Pakistan?
Ambassador Olson: I can’t confirm these reports. We have seen the press reporting and, of course, we are concerned about it and we are looking into it. I have had dialogue with the government of Pakistan about these issues. Government of Pakistan is also concerned about Daesh, and I think that it remains to be seen exactly what all of these reports actually mean. It is not clear if these are sort of copycat incidents, because there have been reports of alignment between various groups and there have been denials, it’s very unclear exactly what is happening - but we nonetheless do remain concerned.
PL: Besides urging India and Pakistan to resolve the tensions between them at the Line of Control through dialogue, is there something more substantive and tangible that the US could do to resolve the Kashmir dispute?
Ambassador Olson: Our position remains constant on this that we think it is up to the two sides to determine the scope, pace and character of these bilateral discussions. We are supportive of the resumption of the dialogue. We are disappointed at the breaking of the dialogue and cancellation of the foreign secretary meetings. Of course we have, as you said, urged restraint with regard to the tensions along the working boundary.
PL: Pakistan launched a massive campaign against terrorists in North Waziristan, the operation Zarb-e-Azb. How do you see these efforts to combat terrorism?
Ambassador Olson: Well, first of all, let me say that this comes in a context where Pakistan is a country that perhaps has suffered more than any other country from the effects of terrorism. I believe Prime Minister (of Pakistan) cited a figure of 50,000 Pakistanis who have died as a result of terrorism incidents over the past decade plus, so in that sense we welcome the decision of the government and the operations of the Pakistan Army to clear North Waziristan Agency which is the last of the 7 agencies to be cleared of militants - in particular we welcome the announcement by the government and the reiteration by the Army chief that Pakistan will deal with all militants that it finds and will not discriminate between so-called good and bad militants and we look forward to seeing the fulfillment of that commitment.
PL: How do you see the continued protests and sit-ins in Islamabad by Imran Khan and Dr Tahir-ul Qadri? In case of military take-over will the US intervene?
Ambassador Olson: First of all, the most important thing is that this is internal, Pakistani domestic political issue. We don’t take any sides, we do not favor any individual or any particular party. Our position is one in favor of the Constitution and the rule of law and the democratic dispensation and so we think that the parties to this dispute should work it out between themselves and anyone who resorts to measures outside the Constitution would not enjoy our support.
PL: A few years ago Pakistan was awarded the highest number of Fulbright scholarships. What is the situation today?
Ambassador Olson: We have one of the largest exchange programs in the world in Pakistan - the Fulbright program in Pakistan is still the most extensively funded of any US government Fulbright program anywhere in the world - and it’s not only Fulbright which is our flagship program that typically brings graduate students to the US , but we also have programs to bring undergraduates for a semester, the associate programs as well as some programs for high school students to participate in exchange student in the US and we even have some midcareer exchange program as well. So we have a very extensive set of exchange programs. We also have a follow-up program in Pakistan - we have an alumni network that we coordinate through the US Embassy - we bring together our alumni regularly and we even have some funding available for them to do community service projects in Pakistan. We are very proud of the exchange program that we have.
PL: You have lived in Pakistan for a couple of years now. What is your impression of Pakistan and its people, and especially the middle class?
Ambassador Olson: I have to say it’s (Pakistan is) an extraordinarily hospitable country. Pakistanis are very warm and hospitable people. I have been warmly welcomed in every home that I have been to and I have been to many. Notwithstanding sometimes we have some political differences with Pakistan, I have found that at the human level the interactions have been very warm and I greatly appreciate the kindness and hospitality of Pakistani people.
PL: You have met several members of the Pakistani-American community from the information and communication technology field and other fields, on this mission. What is your opinion of the Pakistani-American community?
Ambassador Olson: There is a large Diaspora community in the United States – very committed to Pakistan. I see a number of Pakistani Americans in Islamabad – they come to my office often when they are in Islamabad. We have links with major organizations - we tend to do it through our office in Washington - through the Pakistan desk at the State Department – they are in more regular contact with the Diaspora community. One of the things that I find gratifying is the number of Pakistani Americans who want to do something for Pakistan and they are very involved in charitable donations. I think there is room for more cooperation between the US Government and the Diaspora community.